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Normality Redefined: Driving the Fuel Cell Toyota Mirai

Chris Haining June 13, 2016 Featured, Reviews, Toyota Reviews 13 Comments

It had been haunting me all day long. Long and impossibly shiny in its chromium finish, it would glide serenely past as I sat behind the wheel of whichever “ordinary” car I was sampling. Everybody I saw driving it seemed to have the same facial expression- brow slightly furrowed but with an enthused sparkle in the eye.

When a car as exclusive, as under-the-radar as the Toyota Mirai turns up at a press event like this, I assumed that the list of drivers booked in to drive it would read like a who’s who of journalistic glitterati and high-profile celebrity guests. By comparison, according to my pass I’m a no-name blogger from www.Hooniver.se, some obscure Swedish website.

Well, I was wrong, and it urns out I like the Toyota PR team quite a lot.

The only thing I had to be careful of, the softly spoken and evidently very proud Toyota PR gentleman warned me, was that the range was now down to 56 miles. This would be plenty, I thought, and made a mental note to try and avoid depleting this figure too drastically so that some other z-list correspondent could enjoy the same honour.

The Mirai, Toyota’s latest hydrogen fuel cell vehicle and the first to reach series production, has been brought over to the UK for a rigorous schedule of in-field testing. Examples will be leased or lent to utilities companies, local authorities and, I ventured and recieved no rebuttal, taxi companies for evaluation of day-to-day performance. Bloody good idea.

The technology of the Hydrogen Fuel Cell car has been discussed on every website from Amateur Gardener to Crustaceans Today, and there’s very little worth me adding here, but just to recap for those at the back, here’s what makes the technology so appealing. A hydrogen fuel cell power plant takes zeppelin propellant and oxydizes it through an electrolytic reaction using oxygen from the air. The reaction creates two products- electricity and water. The latter flows harmlessly away in the form of vapour, while the former provides motive power for a car, making the entire endeavour worthwhile.

People love Hydrogen fuel cells, mainly for the promise of something for nothing. Hydrogen is a resource that’s natural enough to appear quite prominently in the periodic table, and consuming it seems far less destructive than setting light to something millions of years old that has to be pumped out of the ground and will one day run out.

Unfortunately sucking oil out of the ground and burning it is a very simple procedure, whereas capturing hydrogen (which doesn’t hang around in big, low-altitude clumps like oxygen does) is a tricky business, usually involving its being extracted from methane. So making it readily available in sufficient quantities needs a whole new infrastructure.

Also, Hydrogen, whilst spotlessly clean is also potentially lethal if not handled properly. Subjecting it to extremes of heat is a spectacularly unwise idea, far moreso than gasoline thanks to its volatility. It’s not in the least bit dangerous when properly contained, but spilling a few drops of gas when you fill your Firebird is nothing compared to the worry of spraying hydrogen around.

It’ll be a while before the infrastructure can catch up. And, as long as oil prices are workable, it’ll be an even longer time before it becomes commercially attractive. Two ways the process could be accelerated would be if A) it was mandated into necessity, and B) if the automotive industry got all competitive with each other out of corporate vanity. The first company to successfully launch a widely adopted hydrogen fuelled car will undoubtedly win the spoils of prestige.

Honda and Toyota have been front-runners in this competition- and since I’m here, physically driving the Mirai right now, Toyota are the winners in my horribly blinkered, fickle book.

I didn’t get the chance to put the Mirai through the mill particularly thoroughly. I can’t tell you what it’s like to live with. I can’t even tell you what it’s like on a decreasing radius curve with an adverse camber. I can tell you, though, that I found just being in it very exciting indeed.

I remember when the Prius first came out. Here was a car the likes of which the world had never seen before, a hybrid-powered solution to all worldly ills and a must-have celebrity accessory. So how did it end up so utterly unedifying to drive? Somehow, in the pursuit of normalcy they had ironed out every clue that the car was something different. Sadly they only managed to smother what was a lukewarm driving experience under a thick blanket of visual tedium.

Imagine my relief when I stepped aboard the Mirai and got comfortable in a crisp,white leather seat that visually reminded me of a dead Stormtrooper, though I was on serious drugs at the time. In front of me was a dashboard that made me think of how the future must have looked in 1985. There’s nothing remotely clever about it, apart, perhaps, from the touch-slider HVAC controls. It just looks infinitely more interesting in all its glassy piano-black sleekness than any of today’s soft-touch, blow-moulded bulge-fests.

The speedometer is mounted centrally, a feature which usually has me spitting expletives but somehow felt perfectly appropriate here in The Car Of The Future. Also, though all the control buttons are essentially crap and would be at home on a 1980’s Sony stack system, I happen to really like 1980s Sony stack systems. I experience glee when I behold their armies of dancing lights and, joyously, there are plenty of little visual side-shows to amuse you. The stereo is very good, too, with 11 JBL speakers through which to bathe in the clarity of digital radio.

In a way the alternative-modern interior perfectly matches the outside styling, inasmuch as both aspects of the car would be equally suited to receiving screen-time on Back To The Future. Made extra-OMG by the chrome vinyl wrap applied to this particular car, the Mirai was clearly styled for purpose first with identity added later. There are elements that you’ll recognise from the Prius, especially around the back, but little to define the car as anything but a concept from within the last three decades of Toyota’s history.

I rather like it, not as a thing of beauty but as, well, a thing. I think it’s a nice item, inside and out, though I can feel the designer’s pain when he was tasked with finding an acceptable solution to those big cooling grilles on the car’s chin. He didn’t quite manage to find one, it seems.

When I was finished gawping and prodding I got back behind the wheel and started to drive once again, and soon determined the cause of those lost-in-thought expressions I had seen on those who crewed this car before me. They had all been concentrating. Trying to find something. And I now know what it was.

They had all been trying to find something weird about the way the Mirai drives, and not one of them found it. Because it isn’t there. Never before have I driven a car with such an impossibly different way of doing things which has felt so spellbindingly normal. No one thing has the car feeling like a freak of nature. There isn’t even the only-just-comfortable lunge through time and space that you get if you floor the throttle in a Tesla. It all feels very familiar. But better, somehow.

If you DO plant the throttle, and I was overcome by temptation despite my pledge to preserve range for subsequent voyeurs, you do still feel that lusty, nourishing thrust which only an electric motor can provide. Here, though, rather than just an electrical whine the movement is accompanied by an alien rasp, a high pitched yowl, a shriek as the hydrogen cell has cause to draw on additional gases for electrolysis and cooling.

It sounds…. fascinating. For this aviation enthusiast it’s like listening out for flaps, air-brakes and undercarriage on final approach while my wife concentrates on eking the last few minutes out of the in-flight movie.

I did a good few of these foot-to-the-floor exercises, finding it to be curiously addictive. I determined that the Mirai had more than enough power to hold its own on the road, certainly considering its petrol-car rivalling range.

As I pulled back up to where I had taken the car from earlier, I took a note of the range remaining. 56 miles. HA! In all my “research” I had, in theory anyway, consumed zero resources. The range was the same now, despite my mischief, as it had been twenty minutes ago.

It will be a treat when the infrastructure finally catches up with the science, and the cost of the technology works its way down. Right now a Mirai stands at £61,000 once you’ve taken the £5,000 government OLEV grant into consideration. This means that, right now, the Mirai can only make sense as a tax-deductible asset for a well-heeled early-adopter.

One day, though, and I hope soon, my treasured octane-swilling, carbon spewing relic of the dark ages will share a garage with something like this. Not a car to fall in love with, more a sneak peak into a guilt-free transport solution. A future-proof consumer durable. The very purest of pure white goods.

The appliance of science.

(All images copyright Chris Haining / Redusernab 2016. Thanks Toyota for letting me and at least three dozen other scribblers have a play)

  • Van_Sarockin

    Sounds like quite an advance. Toyota’s to be congratulated for turning this technology demonstrator into a real car.

    However, I’m far less sanguine about the potential viability of hydrogen power. Firstly, most hydrogen comes from natural gas, so it’s a fossil fuel, and it requires further energy to produce hydrogen.

    More importantly, hydrogen is not particularly energy dense, as gasoline or diesel is. Therefore, useful amounts of hydrogen require storage at remarkable pressures – which requires substantial energy.

    Perhaps most importantly, the hydrogen molecule is quite small. Small enough to wander out through the walls of nearly every tank material, meaning that you lose fuel constantly, and especially when the vehicle is not in operation.

    And lastly, I’m a bit surprised you’ve made no mention of BMW’s decades of research into hydrogen power.

    By contrast, it is not hard at all to convert IC engines to burn propane and natural gas. I first saw a pickup propane conversion in 1982 in Amarillo, Texas. And I know that natural gas conversions are a pretty big thing in Germany, where major brand gas stations have dedicated fueling stands, right next to the gasoline pumps. I saw an Opel with such a conversion maybe six years ago, and it was entirely unexceptional, except for the range and inexpensiveness of operation.

    • However, natural gas isn’t exactly the answer either – we’re getting it from fracking, after all. (And that’s part of the problem with hydrogen, that the cheapest way to get it is fracked natural gas.)

      • fricken frack

      • Sjalabais

        One good thing about it is that CNG and LPG cars, trucks and busses create a value chain for a fuel that was often just burned, pointlessly, in oil production before. I know it’s the most boring solution to a better world, but ever increasing efficiency is a goal to go after, too.

    • Correct on all counts. I should have mentioned BMW, but then I’d have had to mention everybody else, and I was already balls deep in TTL;DR territory.

  • I wouldn’t have thought it possible to make the Mirai any uglier. Turns out that a chrome wrap is just the ticket.

    Also, the Honda Clarity fuel cell cars have been leased to a very small number of actual consumers since 2008,according to Wikipedia :

    • Yup, but I’ve never driven one so Toyota get the nod! I’m fickle, as I say.

    • dukeisduke

      And the FCX Clarity is actually good-looking.

  • Fuhrman16

    Something about that car just doesn’t look natural…

  • Kind of like autonomous cars vs. light rail, electric cars are going to win out over hydrogen because there is already a shared infrastructure.

  • Jofes2

    “Hooniver” would actually mean “Hoon eagerness” in Swedish, so it could have been a site.

    • Dean Bigglesworth

      Huunivärs.com. Eftersom Racerbil.

      Or Raggavärs.com. Not exactly “hooniverse” but I can’t think of a better Swedish word for automotive mischief.

      Also “hooni” in Finnish means one of those spindly jobs with a number of scratchy thingamabobs you use to polish the inside of cylinders.

      And last week I learned what a “pointy orange thing”, i.e. a cone, is in Lithuanian. Along with some other words. Then I promptly forgot them all. That bit of sudden memory loss was not eftersom racerbil, however.

  • stigshift

    That thing is completely and irrevocably ugly,even Stevie Wonder would hate it. It should be painted in Braille…

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